Salmon Fishing in Sutherland
It was hard to believe but I drove from Lancashire to Ullapool in heavy rain in mid-September but, five miles north of Ullapool, the sun came out and everywhere looked dry and warm. And so it had been for most of the Summer in north west Scotland whilst we endured wind and rain and heavy grey clouds in most of England.
I had taken a lot of wet weather clothing and a supply of anti-midge cream and spray. No required! No rain and very few midges all Summer: it had been too dry for the midges! Water levels in the rivers I fished were medium to low and several of the many lochs were definitely on the low side. How perverse is our weather?
Salmon on the Kirkaig
I spent a lovely day on the lower beat of the Kirkaig River. That’s an exaggeration, for I spent most of the day on one pool. The river is a short overflow channel from Loch Fionn. It drains the wild and rugged area around the sugar loaf mountain that is Suilven, a solitary, brooding presence. It is quite possible to walk the length of the river in one and quarter hours from estuary to loch: but only one hour coming back down the fairly steep pathway.
Salmon come in to the river as early as March, peak in July and August and there is still a regular procession through until the end of the season in October. The lower beat is quite easily fished with five or six good pools. However, you need to be fit, agile and dexterous to manage many of the pools in the middle and upper beats.
I parked at the little car park near the Achins book shop and coffee bar (a remote spot for a book shop, too). The river here marks the boundary between the counties of Sutherland and Ross & Cromarty. The car park is actually on the river bank of part of the lower beat and, in peak season periods, it can be busy with tourists and walkers. The parking is free and in mid-week in September there were only three other vehicles there.
The Heather Pool
I walked up the right of way for about half a mile to the secluded Heather Pool, a pool I knew well from previous visits. It is just off the beaten track and surrounded by woodlands. The pool itself is kept very fishable by the estate workers and it is possible to cast all day without hooking trees or shrubs.
There is no need to wade the river as the whole length and breadth of the pool is within range of the average caster. There are two man-made dykes on which the angler can step out to get a better presentation for the far side of the pool. In medium to low water fish can be found anywhere from the neck of the pool and for fifty yards down following the stream. In high water conditions the salmon are found closer in to bank behind the many larger boulders and rocks and a visit at low water is worth while to view the geography of the pool.
This was a day we had yearned for all summer in Lancashire; blue sky, gentle breeze and warm sun. Not the best of conditions for salmon fishing but most welcome all the same. At low water Heather Pool can be fished with a single handed rod and an eight weight line but it’s a risky job. Two weeks ago, Peter the Ghillie, netted a twenty pounder from this pool.
Fishing the pool
I have a Daiwa twelve footer that throws a nine or ten weight line comfortably. I used a fifteen foot, tapered leader down to a ten pound tippet and fished a variety of locally recommended flies including a Jocky Scott, Thunder & Lightening, Silver and Blue Doctor and a Green Highlander. Following local custom, I debarbed my hook for these salmon are not for killing but most anglers let them continue on their breeding mission upriver. Gone are the days when the local rivers gave up several dozen fish each day on average and over a hundred fish on exceptional occasions.
Fish of 30lbs are nor rare though the average is below ten pounds. Fly size varies from 1/0 to 5/0 and even 7/0 depending on the state of the water. In Summer flies tend be a wee bit smaller but again, conditions can change from day to day.
Towards the estuary is Elder’s Pool, the highest point to which an ordinary Spring Tide will flow. The river widens out here but is still easily fishable and it is one stretch where it may pay to wade across in low water and fish from the opposite bank. The hot spot in Elder’s Pool requires some accurate casting into the small pool that forms behind the white water gauge by the bank across from the road and path.
Last year, two Dutch anglers pulled five fish out of this pool, all weighing over ten pounds, on a day when no other beat on the river reported a single fish.
I took my ease on a wooden bench and noticed a small brass plate which commemorated Stan Heard who died in the river in 1984 and which admonished anglers to “remember the good days.”
I had a goodish fish out of Heather and lost one in Elder’s, what one of my fellow fishermen describes as “long distance release.” Somehow, the fishing in this part of the world is not just measured by fish caught for there are so many other factors that come into play to ensure that all days are good days.